The Young Fundamentalists: Déjà Vu

Déjà vu is a French term meaning “already seen.” It is the strange sensation that what is happening in the present has already happened in the past. Though we reject explanations that attribute the feeling to psychology or even the occult, most of us have had that distinct “this has happened before” illusion. Over the past few months, I have been involved in two discussions that have left me muttering, “Déjà vu. We’ve been here before.”

The first “discussion” is actually one-sided: Dr. Rolland McCune has taught me much as I have read through the pages of his newly released book on the failure of new evangelicalism, Promise Unfulfilled. His carefully documented history of the movement has been extremely beneficial. I heartily recommend it, especially to my peers (I am 33 years old).

Second, I have participated in a number of discussions with self-proclaimed “young fundamentalists.” I have spoken with these men at conferences; I have looked over results of a recent survey which gathered their opinions on a variety of topics; I have heard and read their prepared statements regarding their perspectives on fundamentalism; I have conversed with them on the phone, over lunch and via email; I have especially dialogued with them on blogs (websites where public journals and discussions take place). The newest and most successful young fundamentalist blog is sharperiron.org).

The first discussion provides a look at fundamentalism’s past; the second provides a look at fundamentalism’s present and future. Unfortunately, the two have often had me doing double-takes: I glance at the history book, then at my computer screen, then back. Déjà vu, indeed. I am increasingly convinced that what is happening right now within fundamentalism has happened before in our history. I fear that many (though assuredly not all) young fundamentalists are flirting with the same issues that began evangelicalism’s freefall just 50 years ago. In short, I see a number of alarming similarities between the young fundamentalists of today and the new evangelicals of the 1940’s and 1950’s:

1. Many Young Fundamentalists are seeking intellectual respect and cultural recognition.
One young man exemplified this desire for recognition when he spoke on behalf of the “20-somethings” at the recent National Leadership Conference in Landsdale, Pennsylvania. Among other frustrations, he voiced his disappointment that no fundamentalist appeared in the February 7, 2005 edition of Time magazine, which listed the 25 most influential evangelical Christians in America. He questioned, Why are we not even on their radar? Are we so marginalized that we are irrelevant?” [i] Although I do not doubt the speaker’s sincerity, the folly of such questions should be obvious. Since when do believers determine their success or relevance by the recognition and accolades of a pagan culture (and a liberal press, no less)? Such a desire for kudos from our culture is extremely dangerous. One cannot help but be reminded of the early new evangelicals who longed for intellectual recognition from their lost contemporaries. Déjà vu.

2. Many Young Fundamentalists are urging increased involvement in social concerns.
For example, one blogger suggests that in order to reach postmodernists, our new strategies must include “emphasizing humanitarian and environmental responsibilities that are taught in scripture but have too long been ignored by conservative Christians.” Many concur, insisting that Christians have a tremendous responsibility to be stewards of the environment. While I do not advocate careless waste that demonstrates poor stewardship and may hurt our testimonies, I fear that many of my peers may spend valuable time and effort on social concerns that, even if legitimate, are temporal and secondary at best. Many young fundamentalists are overemphasizing the importance of social issues. Déjà vu.

3. Many “Young Fundamentalists” are questioning the legitimacy of separation.
Perhaps the most consistent trait among many young fundamentalists is their disdain for the doctrine of separation. Many seem to delight in criticizing fundamental men and organizations. Some mock what they describe as “14th degree separation.” They question whether Scripture even teaches separation from disobedient brethren. They warn that separation will ruin fundamentalism, when, in fact, the opposite is true: lack of separation has ruined evangelicalism. Many young fundamentalists are rejecting or minimizing the doctrine of separation, especially as it relates to disobedient brethren. They are urging a kinder, gentler fundamentalism. Déjà vu.

4. Many “Young Fundamentalists” are abandoning standards of personal holiness.
It should not be surprising that a rejection of ecclesiastical separation from error is accompanied by a rejection of personal separation from sin. Many young critics lampoon fundamentalists of previous generations for preaching against blue jeans, pants on women and playing cards…and often they have a point. However, the same young fundamentalists are reconsidering issues like social drinking, sensual entertainment and worldly music. Ah, progress! (?) Let me give a few examples of issues many young fundamentalists are reconsidering:

Alcohol – One of the most surprising and energetic debates considers whether the long-standing “tee-totaler” conviction of fundamentalists is necessary. Many rejoice that they have thrown off the bondage of extra-biblical, legalistic standards forbidding the consumption of alcohol.

Entertainment – Many of my peers argue that viewing The Simpsons or even some R-rated movies is a legitimate – yea, necessary – part of understanding and reaching our culture. Questioned about the sensuality and vulgarity of such things, several run to Paul’s interaction with the isms and poetry of his day at Mars Hill.

Music – Predictably, music standards have also fallen. Seventy-five percent of young people responding to the recent survey of young fundamentalists indicate that they listen to CCM. Many dismiss conservative music standards as silly divisiveness and blind traditionalism. One states emphatically that “music is the new KJV-only issue of our generation.” The statement makes the rejection of CCM analogous to, say, the rejection of the NASB. Indeed, it compares those who argue for distinct and conservative Christian music with those in the KJV-only crowd who are often heterodox.

Whereas those who wanted CCM in the past have abandoned fundamentalism altogether, many young fundamentalists are intent on embracing both. One, a college student, writes that although he had once rejected the fundamentalist tag, he has since changed his mind: “I now understand that one can be a fundamentalist while listening to Relient K on the way to the movie theatre.”[ii] Others rejoice that even secular artists like U2 and Bono are used of the Lord to effectively communicate truth. Yet, many who enjoy both secular and “Christian” rock still claim the name fundamentalist.

Pastor John Ashbrook recently quipped that many young people are glad to have the name of fundamentalists as long as they can have the attitudes, thoughts and practices of new evangelicals. Indeed! Many young fundamentalists are becoming increasingly worldly in their personal standards. Déjà vu.

5. Many “Young Fundamentalists” are seeking to distance themselves from their predecessors.
The title itself – young fundamentalist – suggests a phobia of being lumped together with the militant separatists that have borne the fundamentalist title heretofore. Suddenly it is not enough to be described simply as a fundamentalist; we now need an adjective to precede the noun. Déjà vu.

The tendency of many young guns to dismiss previous generations is evident in a variety of statements. Some are subtle. For example, one young pastor categorizes eras of fundamentalism in the following way: fundamental “grandfathers” (age 75+) are/were fighters. Fundamental “fathers” (55-75) are separatists and soulwinners. Fundamental “sons” (35-55) are builders. Fundamental “grandsons” (35 and under) presumably are the polishers who will make the somewhat archaic movement they have inherited “effective.” [iii] The error of such categorizing is that it relegates to particular time periods elements which must characterize the church at all times. To imply that the time for fighting or separating is past is naïve at best.

Others are less subtle. One young man derides older men thus: “The difference between our generation and the one before us is that we look up the verse.” Even attempts to express gratitude for older men can tend to come off as disingenuous and patronizing, as though we are patting grandpa on the back and smiling condescendingly as we take away his keys.

Many young fundamentalists are attempting to maintain doctrinal orthodoxy while distancing themselves from the militant separatists who preceded them. Déjà vu.

6. Many “Young Fundamentalists” have a skewed understanding of the history of fundamentalism.
I have been discouraged to find that many who are critical of fundamentalism are actually uninformed or misinformed about “how we got here.” Let me give three examples:

First, they rewrite the history of fundamentalism by emphasizing its doctrinal affirmations.
Sharperiron.org defines fundamentalists as “those who hold to the Big Idea of an inerrant Bible and are willing to battle for it.” Many others define the movement simply by the 5 fundamentals. Thus, the title “fundamentalist” is expanded to include anyone who is doctrinally orthodox, and the last fifty years of church history are ignored.

Next, they rewrite the history of new evangelicalism by emphasizing its doctrinal aberrations.
One young man states emphatically that “[n]ew evangelicalism was a doctrinal shift away from fundamentalism.” There is no question that new evangelicals have made doctrinal concessions. However, the basis of the movement was a change in attitude and practice, not false doctrine. Ockenga’s classic call for change was practical rather than doctrinal. It was a call to infiltration and dialogue, a repudiation of separation and a call to social involvement. Ideally, the new evangelicals’ doctrine was to remain constant while their attitude and practice drifted. Time has demonstrated that the latter two inevitably dragged the former along, but the new evangelicals’ initial failure was one of disobedience, not disbelief.

Finally, they rewrite the history of the fundamentalism/evangelical controversy, blaming separatists for the division. Fundamentalists are often criticized for being schismatic. No one can claim that this is totally false. However, many young men ignore the fact that the division between fundamentalists and new evangelicals was started by new evangelical disobedience. Hence, Rolland McCune observes that “[Billy] Graham brought an end to evangelical unity.” [iv] To be sure, fundamentalism is far from perfect. But the rhetoric that lays the blame for disunity on our front step reminds me of those who would blame America for 9/11. It is unfair and inaccurate to blame fundamentalists for the disobedience of others that required our response.

Unfortunately, it seems that many who are eager to claim the title “young fundamentalist” are also eager to strip the term of historical meaning. My interaction with some young fundamentalists leads me to reconsider the title. Are they young? Absolutely. Are they fundamental? Not so much.

Conclusion: I will close by offering some clarifications and suggestions:

I am not intending to paint all young fundamentalists with the same broad brush. If the young men I have discussed are anything, they are independent. I am not suggesting that what is true of some is true of all. The mindsets of these young men differ greatly from one to the next; we dare not lump them all together.

I am not suggesting that we write off an entire generation. Despite the concerns which I have voiced, I am thankful that the term “young fundamentalist” is not an oxymoron. I rejoice to fellowship with a growing number of fundamental men in their 20’s and 30’s who have an understanding of the history of our movement, an appreciation for our predecessors, a balanced philosophy of ministry and a commitment to the whole counsel of God, including its separatist principles. And I am hopeful that many of the talented, sincere and godly young men whose judgment I sometimes question, but whose spirit I admire, will firm up their convictions and continue to labor alongside us.

I am not suggesting that we ignore all of the concerns of the young fundamentalists. Much of what the young fundamentalists are saying is true. For instance, I agree with them that fundamentalists have sometimes emphasized the style of worship over its spirit, though I disagree with many of their solutions. The answer is to maintain a reverent style while also emphasizing worship that is spiritual, thoughtful and passionate.

I also agree that fundamentalists have sometimes wrongly judged individuals as “in” or “out” on the basis of extra-biblical criteria. I am not speaking of issues which Scripture addresses directly (via commands) or indirectly (via principles, such as alcohol or worldly music). Nor am I speaking of a denial of militant separatism, for a non-militant fundamentalist is an apparition. I am addressing some questions of taste and practice: Does a church or pastor use a modern version? Does a church project song lyrics onto a screen? Does a pastor wear a tie on Monday through Friday? Do young ladies show up in pants? There are many questions which are not biblical but cultural. I suggest that we carefully differentiate between issues that are biblical mandates and those that are personal preferences. Men who differ on such things may very well be fundamentalists.

I am suggesting that we determine our convictions and define our movement by Scripture, not by a poll of young men. The poll that was taken recently is informative, and I appreciate the countless hours of work it must have required. It tells what young men are thinking; it points out weak areas in our training and holes in our convictions; it tells us what we must do better. However, the risk of analyzing such a poll is that it can become prescriptive rather than descriptive. That is, some may attempt to alter the movement in order to keep malcontents from leaving the fold. I suggest that we graciously but firmly maintain a biblical position. Let those who agree stay. Let those who bristle walk.

I am not trying to chase away from the movement young men who are asking genuine questions. Despite the force of the last paragraph, I am not trying to drive young men off. I encourage you to find Bible answers to your questions and to seek out the counsel of the older men whom you respect. However, if you determine to stay within fundamentalism, I urge you to do so for honorable reasons. Stay because you agree with the movement’s principles, even if you have been embarrassed by some of its proponents. Stay because you recognize that Scripture requires both faithful proclamation of the truth and militant opposition to error. Stay because the Bible teaches the doctrine of separation. But don’t stay if you intend to hijack the fundamentalist name and institutions. Don’t stay if you reject fundamentalism’s militancy and separatism. Don’t stay for pragmatic reasons. It is not honorable – or even honest – to “bide your time” until you can steer this movement the way of new evangelicalism.

By God’s grace, I pray that He will continue to raise up godly men who will still be fundamental long after they have ceased to be young.


[i] Andy Burggraff, “The 20-Somethings Perspective I” (Public address, also posted on the internet here)

[ii] For you “old fundamentalists,” Relient K is a self-described “power pop/punk rock” band. Their website explains the thinking behind their new album, MMHMM (um…that’s the title): “I feel like with this record when we’re rocking heavy, we’re rocking heavier than we ever have….We’ve also found it to be the hardest thing in the world to say ‘Jesus’ in a song and not be cheesy, so we definitely have our own way of singing about spirituality.” No question about that.

[iii] Jason Janz, “The Future Fundamentalists: Where are the young guys headed?” (Article which may be viewed at here)

[iv] Rolland McCune, Promise Unfulfilled, p. 55.

May 2005

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